The Issue of Sexism in Old Hollywood

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It is not hard at all to fall in love with Old Hollywood, especially if you are a hopeless romantic, like myself. The hazy cigarette smoke, passionate embraces and silky gowns will entrance you, there is no era quite like it. While romanticizing the glitz and glamour, one forgets that Old Hollywood was not a fantasy, and it was in fact, a nightmare for some. The era would not have been so beautiful without women, but so many women suffered severely at the hands of studios and film directors. Due to the restrictions of the time, womens’ roles were diminished and actresses could not fully express themselves. Those who chose to go against the grain were ostracized and those in power buried their legacies. The sexism that thrived in the supposed ‘Golden’ era created the culture of abusing and subjugating women in the film industry, which still thrives today.

To begin, I will examine the illustrious history of the so-called casting couch. As films became more popular and the promise of financial security so elusive, many young women stampeded to Hollywood. Casting directors became more and more selective on who they picked, thus it became more and more common for women to offer sexual favors in exchange for parts in movies. There were also “stag parties” and these parties were practically orgies, under the guise of being formal events. These parties presented another opportunity for the big-name directors to prey upon vulnerable women. By the end of the silent movie era, women were just replaceable props on screen. In a director’s eyes, any young bright-eyed girl could just as easily be swapped for another, so they were disposable. Accusations of sexual harassment were swept under the rug, in the case of poor twelve-year-old Shirley Temple who claimed that a male director exposed himself to her. Similar situations can still be seen today, in light of the #MeToo movement.

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Another aspect of sexism was the strict standards imposed on the looks of female actresses. Judy Garland, for example, was told by the studio bosses at MGM while filming The Wizard of Oz, that she should lose weight. They restricted her meals and forced diet pills down her throat. As well as excessively smoking cigarettes, hoping this would kill her appetite. Garland developed many self-esteem and body image issues as a result of this, which haunted her for the rest of her life. She died at the of age 47 from a drug overdose. It would be difficult for any woman to maintain the standards of what was considered beautiful in Hollywood back then. They wanted women to have impossibly tiny waists, round hips and plump lips. Female actresses often had to seek out unhealthy methods to obtain and maintain this standard, which is no different from today.

There was one article, however, which did critique the way women were treated in show business. This article was entitled “The Perils of Show Business” and it was by Derek Walker and Tom Hutchison. They exposed some of the ugly things that would happen behind closed doors. It detailed many horrifying tales of sexual assault. Although, the two male authors did still have some biases, because they victim blamed and they acted as if it was the woman’s responsibility to protect herself from these predator directors. They did not acknowledge that the actual predators are the ones causing these encounters. They even go as far as to say that some of the victims threw themselves at producers. Overall, while they were brave for speaking up at all, they still did not address how to change this male-dominated industry. Another rarely addressed aspect of Hollywood was that young men were sexully abused at the hands of film directors, too. Due to homosexuality being very taboo at the time, no one dared talk about it. These young men experienced the casting couch, too. Being assaulted as a man has different implications than it does for women. Most of the young male actors would be scared to report, in fear that they would be seen as less masculine. Those that abused them surely took advantage of the cultural stigma, which is even more vile.

Furthermore, Dorothy Arzner was someone who definitely went against the grain. She was one of the only female directors at the time. Her claim to fame was that she often portrayed men as useless, and that she presented marriage as a patriarchal institution that stripped women of their rights. Needless to say, many did not take very kindly Arzner’s works and she never received much positive acclaim.

Representation for women of color was far and few in between. Even though white women were still treated terribly in the film industry, women of color were rarely seen in films at all. If they were, it would have been a stereotypical role, like a maid or a nanny. I think this early practice of excluding non-white women from film contributed to eurocentric beauty standards. Although there has been some improvement, women of color still struggle for representation in the industry and to fight for better roles. As Viola Davis said, “I always say that Meryl Streep would not be Meryl Streep without Sophie's Choice, without Kramer vs. Kramer, without Devil Wears Prada. You can't be a Meryl Streep if you're the third girl from the left in the narrative with two scenes.” This was during her Emmy acceptance speech, being one of the few black women who has won an Emmy. She means to say that it is not a lack of talent that is keeping women of color out of Hollywood, but a racial hierarchy that refuses to give them roles at all. If given roles and opportunities, women of color can shine.

Finally, whilst Hollywood has come leaps and bounds, it still has many ways to go in terms of becoming a safe place for women. In light of the #MeToo movement, I would say that there are many entities who remain complicit in what goes on behind closed doors. Casting couches are nothing new and it was common knowledge to many what directors did to young women, but so many did not care to stop it. It is my hope that as more women become comfortable with opening up and sharing their stories, those that can will intervene and prevent these types of situations from happening. Women should not feel diminished in Hollywood, but should be allowed to prosper as much as men. The premise of Old Hollywood was to entertain people and make them happy, to bring light and joy into the masses, this should not be done at the expense of women. Women of all backgrounds have so much to offer, and I really hope that when I have a daughter one day, she will be able to watch strong, empowered women on screen..

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